MicroProse take their simulation seriously. So when they bring out a game called Pirates! complete with an 88 page booklet and historically accurate map of the Spanish Main you know it's going to be as near as you can get to the real thing without getting your feet wet.
There are ways to begin the game: you can either set sail straight away, hope for some good luck and learn things on the way, or you can read the instructions from beginning to end before you even pick up the joystick. But this is no ordinary instruction manual, it tells you must more than how to load the game and which way to push the joystick. The booklet also contains historical notes on the political and social history of the period, the geography of the area, fighting tactics, and other advice in the form of 'The Memoirs of Capt'n Sydney' An apprentice Capt'n Sydney'. An apprentice Capt'n can learn more from one of Capt'n Sydney's colourful tales than he would in a month of sailing.
The object of the game, is to get up to the sort of things that 17th century pirates got up to. In other words, find yourself a ship and a crew to man it, set sail, attack and plunder other vessels, raid other ports, trade with merchants, find treasure, and all that sort of thing. But don't get the idea you can go around plundering willy nilly. Oh no. This is a simulation, you see, not a seafaring free for all. You've got to behave yourself and think about the consequences of your actions just like any self-respecting sea captain worth his salt.
As in any good simulation, there are a number of scenarios in which offers you a different degree of difficulty and present different problems, Pirates! offers you the opportunity to become an English Buccaneer, a French Buddanneer, a Dutch Adventurer, or a Spanish Renegade. You can select a level of difficulty from Apprentice, through Journeyman and Adventurer to Swashbuckler. Furthermore, at the start of a game you can select a special ability at which you will have particular prowess. You can choose from skill at fencing, skill at navigation, skill at gunnery, wit and charm, and skill at medicine. Skill at fencing is recommended for novices.
In addition to those options you can go on a famous expedition. These are one-off voyages in which the conditions emulate those of an actual historical event. The only difference being that you are in command and not Francis Drake, or whoever. The famous expeditions you can choose from are:
Francis Drake, 1573: Where Drake ambushed the Spanish Silver Train and gained a fortune in gold.
Piet Heyn, 1628: Heyn raided the Spanish Treasure Fleet off Havana and got away with 46 tons of silver for which the Dutch Government were very grateful. It ruined the Spanish economy though.
L'ollonais, 1666: It means 'the man from Ollone, his real name was Jean-David Nau and he was a complete bastard. He seems to have spent most of his time killing and plundering for only modest rewards. Nonetheless he became wealthy, but went back for more and ended up clubbed to death.
Henry Morgan, 1671: As in Captain Morgan rum. Morgan sacked Panama, became fantastically wealthy, was knighted, and retired to Jamaica where he drank himself to death. That's the way to do it.
Baron de Pontis, 1697: The baron invaded Cartagena in order to stick it to the Spanish (with whom, in addition to the English and French were at war). He came away with lots of loot, but paid his men a pittance, so they went back for more - and got it. De Pontis is significant because his was the last great expedition involving buccaneers.
You'll have gathered by now the Pirates! is not lacking in authenticity. How you go about being a pirate is by the kind of arcade-adventure mix that everyone is familiar with. All decisions are taken by moving a cutlass pointer on a menu bar.
Whilst in port you can visit the governor, from whom you will get the latest news and political information. If it is a friendly port and you have not attacked any of their ships (and they're not at war with your country!) the Governor might even give you dinner. If you have been very successful in fighting his enemies, you may even get a title and a piece of land. The local tavern is a good place to recruit crew and buy information. If you're getting a bit tired with your expedition you can divide the plunder with the crew and start out afresh. Whilst in town (or anywhere else) you can also get additional information. You can read the ship's log, check your individual and the party's status, or get your bearings from a sun sight.
But of course piracy is about more than going into town for the shopping and a bit of a gossip. If it's fighting you're looking for, you'll find it both at sea and on land. Sea battles begin with the sighting of sails on the horizon. If you decide to investigate the lookout will tell you what kind of ship it is and what colours she's flying. Once you have closed for battle, the tactics are up to you.
The display shows each ship in the water. You can turn to port or starboard using the joystick and raise and lower the sails similarly. At any time you can close on the enemy ship and board her for a swordfight, but it's as well to give her a few broadsides first. That shakes them up a bit. Once you've boarded, you engage in a swordfight with the captain of the other vessel.
First you can decide whether to use your rapider, longsword or cutlass, each has its own special advantages. Swordfighting moves are carried out by joystick movements similar to those used in other one-on-one fighting simulations, but result in combinations of moves. While you are fighting the enemy captain the fighting carries on all around you. You don't see it but the success of your crew depends on its morale and its morale depends on how well you are doing against the enemy captain.
The morale of the respective crews is displayed at the bottom of the screen and ranges from wild! (pretty good) to panic (not so hot). When the crew panics, or its number is reduced to one, a single bow to the commanding captain will bring about a surrender. So the way to win sea battles is either to attack with superior forces, or send your crew wild with a display of courage and skill with the sword so that they can win, even though they can win even though overnumbered.
You needn't confine your pirating activities to the high seas. You can also attack towns and forts both from the sea and from land. Each method has its own tactical considerations. When attacking from land you must control groups of men with muskets. Manoeuvre them into advantageous positions using the woods for cover and they will fine on the enemy as soon as they are in range. If you are successful in forcing the enemy to panic, they will run for it and you can storm the fort where a swordfight will take place on the ramparts. Once again, you must lead from the front, raising the morale of your crew with an exhibition of of heroic swordsmanship. Alternatively you can take the fort from the seaward side, but you must land close enough to the fort so that the men will march to it and, of course, avoid being hit too many times by the fort guns.
Describing the various aspects of pirates doesn't really do it justice. For one thing, it's such a complex and extensive game only a general idea can be given here. Secondly, the game is much more than the sum of the arcade elements from which it's made up.
In terms of realism, historical accuracy, gameplay and fun, Pirates! has it all. It's a hundred times better than the other so-called 'swashbuckling simulations' I've seen and if anyone else was planning to cash in on the current passions for pirates they'd have to go a long way to beat this.